A blog by John Edwards, Information Commissioner
21 December 2022
As a society we understand that a free press is an essential function of our democracy. The media hold people to account, bring issues to the forefront of national discussion and create social change.
But we understand too that there must be checks and balances. Journalists are not above the law, and where that looks to have happened, for instance when newspapers involve themselves in phone hacking or paying public officials for stories, then society responds to ensure a sensible balance is found.
Data protection is part of that balance. The law supports journalists to be able to inform the public and hold the powerful to account, including a clear exemption in certain circumstances from many requirements of the law. But it also gives broader protections to people’s privacy. As we saw at the Leveson Inquiry, there are occasions when journalists’ desire for stories overstep the mark.
It was as a result of the Leveson Inquiry and public concern about journalists acting beyond the law that Parliament made a decision to expressly include journalists and the press as subject to data protection law, and tasked the ICO with creating a Journalism Code of Practice to assist the media in understanding and meeting their statutory obligations. This Code – still being developed with input from media - will give clear and practical guidance about how to comply with data protection law while still enabling journalists to do their important and valued job.
The letter sent to government by three national newspaper editors last week suggested that this code will in some way ‘shackle’ the media. That is far from the case. Our codes do not create new law, but simply explain what is required under the existing law – indeed, similar codes already exist around protecting children’s data online or sharing data. There is nothing in our code that constitutes a limit on the freedom of the press.
It is misdirected and disingenuous to criticise a draft code that is still under review, as part of our detailed and thorough consultation process. We have been speaking with journalists and those in the media throughout, to understand how data is used, and how the law might apply to them. The latest draft of the code reflects a great deal of what we’ve heard from the media across our consultation.
We will, of course, continue to work with the media to ensure we produce a clear and practical code. Where the media would like to be exempted from the law entirely, they must take their case to the government. But until that point, it will remain that a free press is an essential function of our democracy, but so is the ability for a regulator to carry out the will of Parliament.
John Edwards is the UK Information Commissioner.